Status: May be obsolete, given the 1.7 release, but I haven’t checked in detail.
I’ve run seven sessions of Scum & Villainy, based on the 1.6 release that is current at the time of writing, and have tried to compose my thoughts on it below. This isn’t really a review, and is rather premature until the final release is out, but may be useful if you’re thinking of trying it. My primary audience is the S&V developers — I want to write my comments down for them before I forget and before they have to commit to the final text.
- 7 sessions, mostly evening ones of 2.5-3 hours
- Played open table with a pool of about six and average of three in any one session. All had played rpgs at least a little before. They were mid-20s to early 50s with one-third women.
- No-one, including me, had played Blades in the Dark, nor any other hack
- I haven’t run that many SF or science-fantasy games before, and although I like some media in that vein I’ve not had great experiences with those games.
One consequence of the above was that every session needed to have the same complete pattern — setup, choose a job, do the job, heat-payout-entanglement, downtime, xp.
S&V worked well, helping us run science-fantasy heist missions very much in a Firefly vein. Action kept moving, the players worked together and were usually highly engaged (except for perhaps one session were I unwisely let five play at once). Just about everybody seemed to get the setting straight away, with Firefly being the principal touchstone. Six of seven missions were chaotic and confused, usually starting with bad engagement rolls, but the players seemed to enjoy this.
We stopped playing for a variety of reasons:
- Some players struggling to make characters that worked for them. They made weird xenos, they made more conventional characters… nothing seemed to gel.
- At least one of our regular players had no interest in SF settings, so never played
- I found the supplied setting very bland, and wasn’t keen to put the time into making it my own.
- NB I find most mainstream SF settings — Firefly, Star Trek, Star Wars — very dull. When I like fiction set in them, it’s largely in spite of the setting. I’d much rather start with 40K, Philip K Dick, maybe some Gibson, and hack out from there.
- I wanted to start playing my own early-stage Blades hack, and to concentrate on just that one game
If I wanted to characterise the game quickly, I might say “It’s a bit like the GMing approach from Dungeon World had a child with the resolution mechanics from Burning Wheel, and said child grew up watching only Star Wars and heist movies”. That’s a bit crude — the strong resemblance to BW is in terms of how the resolution system feels, not so much the BW mode of character- (“Belief-“) driven play.
You might ask “Given that you’d like the Blades setting better, and Blades is a more mature game in any case, why didn’t you just play Blades?”. Because, unfortunately, I had another long-running open-table game in parallel, which was very close to the Blades setting. And I was more interested in learning the rules so as to hack from them, rather than either game as-is.
Many of these I suspect are inherited from Blades in the Dark, but I will report them here anyway.
- The central mechanic is a little complex, but it’s good, and mostly easy to work with. I much, much prefer this to the mess of moves used by PBtA games (see What I like about Dungeon World, and what I do not). I had little trouble understanding the downside/upside split of position and effect, which seems to have been a barrier for some people.
- S&V inherits the general approach to player-GM relationships of Dungeon World, which I find far more agreeable than the OSR-inspired one that I’ve been practicing in my Immergleich game.
- I got some utility from clocks as pacing devices and for disclaiming responsibility (although there is clearly a lot of artistry for them that I will need to learn).
- As I noted above, my player base had easy touchstones for both the setting and the style of play.
- It was easy to fit job opportunities into the setting, and seemed pretty easy to keep conflict going on in the big picture without forcing the PCs to take a side.
- Handling of NPCs, particularly ones on an ordinary scale (i.e. not the “master assassins” from the Blades book) was easy and fluid, and I had little trouble adjudicating behaviour and results that made sense.
- In general, as GM I had quite a few rules to run, but hardly any mechanical details to keep track of — they were all on the player side. This was a good feeling, for the most part. As with the clocks, I sense depths of mastery I’ll want here if I keep playing Blades and co.
- The playbook and ship sheets were generally good, and packaged up a lot of the rules players needed.
Problems and Possible Weaknesses
Again, many of these are probably common with Blades.
- Even though I hadn’t played Blades, I’d read it well, and I found it hard to remember exactly where the rules differed.
E.g. I missed the difference in healing rules at first, except for the longer track on the character sheets, which lead to us running a worst-of-both implementation for a while.
- I struggled to remember to even think about Quality vs Tier when setting effect levels. I think I would have done a lot better if there was a hard rule (e.g. “2 tiers difference is one effect level difference”). I appreciate that would be a lot more stylised than the current effect model.
- Because we ran open table we really wanted to complete the full game cycle in each session, and that was very hard in our short sessions. We just about managed it every time, but it was difficult (e.g. often a player had their xp done by others because they’d had to leave). Open table always makes this hard, of course, but the entanglement and downtime rules made this harder.
- Gambits provided a nice shared resource, but they stayed completely abstract, which was slightly odd. We could have tried to narrate them (e.g. as particular clever-and-risky tactics) but I didn’t push for that as sessions were already taking too long.
- Given the scale that crews can achieve in Blades, the restriction to just a single ship seems limiting. Were I to play the game longer term, I’d probably design an extension which let PCs run a larger organisation.
- I guess the layout is temporary, and there will be more art and whitespace in the final, but in case there is some commonality — I find the layout quite hard to skim. My eyes kind of skitter across the pages, as if they’re icy.
- The ship sheet has a number of problems. The one that confused us most was the system quality and damage track things — it’s hard to erase damage without erasing quality by mistake. And easy for players to forget what either of them mean.
- The four described star systems tended to blur in my mind. Each system felt like a bag of places and things, rather than a themed place “Rin is like this, Brekk is like this, …”. In a more reality-simulationist game I could see why you’d want to avoid that, but for a game like S&V broad bold strokes are valuable. Art may of course help here.
- The system names, in particular, seem generic and unmemorable — if there are mnemonics in the names as to the nature of each system, I don’t see them. Contrast Blades itself (Whitecrown, Dunslough, …) or the districts from my own city-based game (Mount Pleasant, Main Market, Bad Water, …).
- Similary, the sector has a clear geographic metaphor — it’s a backwater, far from the core. But then you drop that for the systems themselves, with Brekk being the outermost system but apparently the most civilised? That really messes with my intuitions.
- The game-ending rule in the third paragraph under “Status changes” — WTF? Is this a test to see who’s reading? Like finding your book in a libary and putting a 50 dollar bill between pages 10 and 11?